When it comes to back exercises, the pullover has its share of controversy. As far as proper technique and efficacy are concerned, the topic has several warring factions, but I’ll agree with the old-school bodybuilders’ view on the move. They swear by pullovers citing added development and overall trunk thickness. It’s most commonly done with a dumbbell, though in some cases a barbell is used.

SEE ALSOThe Complete 5-Move Guide for a Bigger Back

Dumbbell Pullovers – The Execution

To start, find a secure bench or step that won’t slide or move under your weight, and set up so your upper back is positioned against one side of it. Hold the dumbbell overhead using both hands (cupped around one end of the bell) and extend the arms back with slightly bent elbows. The hips should be raised off the ground, with the feet firmly planted. Feel for the stretch in the chest and the expansion of the ribcage, and then “drag” the dumbbell with long arms to a position above the abdominals, in a large arcing pattern. As you go through the movement, be sure to depress the shoulders and engage the lats during the up phase.

The Problem

Though this exercise is too often used to speculate that it creates no benefit, I will dare to say that it’s not the most effective for someone looking for back development. In my opinion, I believe the dumbbell pullover is a more effective exercise for the intercostals, abdominals, pecs, and long head triceps to be trained.  A closer look at the force angle of a dumbbell pullover exposes its inability to directly hit the lats for the majority of the movement. Gravity will create downward force to counter the direction of the pull through the beginning quarter of the lift, allowing the lats to become partially involved. After this point, however, the movement is largely horizontal (as the weight passes over the torso), leaving the lats uninvolved, and the chest, abs, triceps and shoulders much more involved. In a nutshell, all this means that a great percentage of the lift doesn’t allow its forces to oppose the contraction force of the lats, which is bad news for efficiency. It’s like trying to do a seated row with a dumbbell while sitting upright. The gravity will simply shift the force to be more challenging to the shoulders in just holding the dumbbell up to do the rows.

The Solution: Cable Pullovers

As you may have guessed from my seated row example, it’s fitting to use a cable attachment to properly oppose the lats and their fibers.  Just like a pulldown needs full extension and tension applied away from the lats, the same is true for pullovers, which is what makes the cable pullover so effective for back development. To do them, grab any flat bench and keep the same setup you used for the dumbbell version. Attach ropes to the pulley. Lie on your back on the bench, with your head closes to the pulley, and hold the ropes with an overhand or neutral grip. Make sure there’s tension in the cable, and perform the same pullover movement as you would with a dumbbell.  The benefit: Now, 100% of the movement is dominated by the lats, since the resistance is coming from behind, and not above.  As you hit your lats from start to finish, take note of the burn you’ll create in the process – one that dumbbell pullovers just won’t provide.

And remember: It doesn’t take much weight to really hit the muscles hard in this movement – it’s an assistance exercise that’s pretty technical. If you’re used to lugging an 80 or 100 pound dumbbell overhead to do your pullovers, try cutting the weight in half when using cables, and rep it out. 

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